Friday, August 01, 2008

Progressives Need a More Appealing Alternative Narrative

Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, expresses his concern in his latest contribution to Tom Dispatch, War Meets Values on Campaign Trail: Will the Big Winner of 2008 Once Again Be a Conservative Culture-Wars Narrative?

He suggests that "the so-called culture wars" have shifted from social issues to national security, and that this is McCain's "only chance" to win. He argues that McCain will increasingly try to attract the so-called "values voters" by referring to his "experience," with which they can more readily identify than with Obama's.
Pundits and activists who oppose the war in Iraq generally assume that the issue has to work against McCain because they treat American politics as if it were a college classroom full of rational truth-seekers. The reality is much more like a theatrical spectacle. Symbolism and the emotion it evokes -- not facts and logic -- rule the day.
This is an important consideration for progressive electoral strategy, and for progressive strategy more broadly. Perhaps progressives have to abandon their assumption that if people only knew the facts and gained enough insight, they would adopt their positions. Indeed, as psychologist Drew Westen argues in The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2007), emotions and symbolism play a key role in politics, and especially in elections. But symbolism and emotions cut both ways, which is clearly evidenced by both the excitement and the lingering concerns surrounding Obama, and McCain's enduring appeal.

In a section appropriately entitled "Creating New Stories," Chernus makes a number of important points and suggestions that progressives would to well to take into consideration and act on.

He starts out by pointing out that there is nothing "natural" about many Americans sharing a conservative understanding of certain values. Rather, it is the result of cultural evolution, which can be influenced, at least to some degree. This is very much a question of the relative power of different groups over public discourse, making their ideology more or less hegemonic.
Yet there is no law of nature that says the "ordinary American," white working class or otherwise, must value individualism, self-reliance, patriotism, and war heroics while treating any value ever associated with the 1960s as part of the primrose path to social chaos. In reality, of course, the "ordinary American" is a creature of shifting historical-cultural currents, constantly being re-invented.
Chernus attributes that fact that a conservative interpreation of certain core values is still so widespread among the white working class at least in part to progressives having neglected to develop "alternative narratives" that could address their concerns in meaningful ways. In short, their failure is in good part their own fault.

But the 1960s does indeed remain a pivotal era -- not least because that is when liberal, antiwar America largely did stop caring much about the concerns and values of working-class whites. Those workers were treated as an inscrutable oddity at best, an enemy at worst. Liberals didn't think about alternative narratives of America that could be meaningful across the political board. Now, they reap the harvest of their neglect.

It does no good to complain about "spineless Democrats" who won't risk their political careers by casting courageous votes against war. Their job is to win elections. And you go to political war with the voters you have. If too many of the voters are still trapped in simplistic caricatures of patriotism and national security created 40 years ago -- or if you fear they are -- that's because no one has offered them an appealing alternative narrative that meets their cultural needs.

It does no good to complain that such working-class views are illogical or stupid or self-destructive. As long as progressives continue to treat "ordinary Americans" as stupid and irrelevant, progressives will find themselves largely irrelevant in U.S. politics. And that's stupid, because it doesn't have to be that way.

Indeed, there is still way too much sterile scoffing going on on the left. Not that critical analysis isn't important; indeed it is essential. But if this is the main if not the only thing you do, it is counterproductive, for there is a huge opportunity cost: If you spend all the time criticizing, you don't have any resources left to develop viable alternatives. I am afraid this is in part due to convenience, if not laziness, for it is so much easier to complain and to lament than to develop realistic alternative strategies for how to achieve significant change.
What can be done to change this picture? Facts and logic are rarely enough, in themselves, to persuade people to give up the values narratives that have framed their lives. They'll abandon one narrative only when another comes along that is more satisfying.

Democrats started looking for a new narrative after the 2004 election, when the media told them that "values voters" ruled the roost and cared most about religious faith. The result? Democrats, some of them quite progressive, are creating effective faith-oriented frames for their political messages.

Yes, framing issues by using language and symbols that evoke positive emotions and that appeal to peoples' faith is important. Indeed, framing was Lakoff's favorite tactic, but he has fallen from grace, and his Rockridge Institute had to close due to a lack of funding. Apparently, framing is not enough, and this tactic should not be confused with strategy. And it remains to be seen how far Westen's ideas on emotions and politics will go.

Isn't this precisely what Obama is trying to do by appealing to our "better angels" with his emphasis on "hope" and "change," and by reaching out to religious communities? But will it be enough? As Obama himself continues to point out, there are some differences between him and McCain that he can't change: Black/white, young/old, different names, etc. What difference will these differences make in the perception and behavior of voters? Nobody knows, but some forecasing models quantify "ballot-box racism" with up to ten percentage points ...

Be that as it may, the task for progressives remains to systematically develop alternative narratives that speak to conservatives, and especially the white working class, in meaningful ways. But a change in discourse by itself is not enough. It has to be accompanied by a simultaneous change in government and policies that allow people to experience the benefits of public policies.

The problem in articulating semantic and structural changes is that the latter take much longer to bring about than the former. Perhaps this is one reason why many progressive funders seem to prefer projects that promise to change discourses: They achieve their results so much faster. But since they typically don't lead to structural changes, while valuabe in and of themselves, their effects tend to dissipate and don't build anything lasting in a cumulative way. Perhaps this is one of the reaons why the left has remained so weak over the past 40 years.

In sum, raising consciousness and changing discourses are necessary but by no means sufficient steps to achieve structural change. They need to be integrated into a larger strategy that manages to build power cumulatively in the long-term from a position of weakness. This starts with a realistic assessment of progressive resources, and requires a theory of change that can make a credible case for what tactics and operations will lead to which change and why - but this is the subject of a future post.

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